The boiling point of public school funding

 

Email Sandra Nichols

  "Our educators and families manage to put up with funding reductions because they are gradual. Who would sit still if California schools went from nearly the top to nearly the bottom in per-pupil spending overnight?"

 

his year could be the turning point for California public schools. The direction of that turn is what has the attention of educators and parents throughout the state.

On one hand, we could recognize the lunacy of under-funding our schools and take corrective action. On the other hand, we could allow financial support for schools to erode even further, letting schools veer off in the direction of starving to death.

To put in perspective the current school-funding crisis, consider changes in funding over the last 30 years. In making these comparisons, national averages of per-pupil spending is used to take inflation and numbers of students into account.

California schools used to have a stellar reputation that was well deserved. That was when our schools were well funded. Before 1978, we funded our public schools $600 per student above the national average. That was the year Proposition 13, the "tax payer revolt," was voted into existence. School funding started deteriorating that year, a trend that has continued unabated.

By 1981, Californians were funding schools below the national per-pupil average for the first time in recent history. Funding continued on its downward spiral through the turn of the millennium, even though voters approved Proposition 98 in l988, in an attempt to reinstate better funding. By 2001, we funded our schools at $1075 less per-pupil than the national average.

Clearly, it is true that if you reduce school funding a little every year, dedicated educators will take what they can get and do their best with it. Eventually, the educational careers of 6 million students are in jeopardy. Eventually, teachers become disheartened; drop-outs increase; class sizes grow; schools get shut down; librarians, counselors and nurses disappear; and enrichment programs become a thing of the past. Our educators and families manage to put up with these reductions because they are gradual. Who would sit still if California schools went from nearly the top to nearly the bottom in per-pupil spending overnight?

Things can sneak up gradually without catching our full attention until the boiling point is reached. That is where we are today, the boiling point.

While we sit around and fail to fund our schools sufficiently, other states and countries are providing world-class educational opportunities and graduating students with whom our graduates must compete for jobs and slots in college.

While we continue to try to run schools on the cheap, our governor says he wants to keep the taxes low in California to attract new businesses. What new business is going to move here unless our schools are producing a well-educated workforce?

While our students lose out on enrichment activities that can no longer be afforded, our fine teachers leave the field because they can not make an adequate living and are expected to buy their own paper and crayons.

As I write this, the governor is preparing his "May revise," in which he makes changes in the budget plan he unveiled in January. It is anticipated that the governor is sticking to his plan to under-fund our public schools. Please prove me wrong, Mr. Governor!

Last year, the governor needed the support of the education community to get his budget proposals passed, and he got it. He made a deal with the Education Coalition, promising to restore Prop 98 funding to schools as required by law this year. Incredibly, the governor is breaking that promise. He has turned his back on the schools and our students. The education community will not be fooled two years in a row.

Educators, students and parents around the state have been activating against the governor's proposal. As a direct result, his popularity has been shrinking. Here in Santa Cruz County we formed a coalition and have been meeting with Central Coast legislators and news media. For more information, go to our website, www.campaignSOS.org. We are doing our part on behalf of our students. These are our schools, the hope of a better future.

There is an Asian proverb of great wisdom: If you would plan for a year, plant row crops. If you would plan for ten years, plant orchards. If you would plan for 100 years, build schools. Yes, schools are an important investment, but they will not work if perpetually under-funded.

It's a wonder that our schools can do as well as they do with so little money. This is clearly due to the dedication and hard work of the school staffs. Let's call this the boiling point, turn the tide on school funding and make our schools strong and healthy again.

Sandra Nichols is a trustee and past president of the Pajaro Valley Unified School District Governing Board serving 19,700 students in Santa Cruz and Monterey Counties. She is a Speech and Language Specialist with the Santa Cruz City School District, and a former commissioner on the Santa Cruz County Children and Youth Commission. The opinions expressed are those of Sandra Nichols and do not necessarily represent those of any school district, print publication, or web site.

© Sandra Nichols 2005


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